Bruce Charlton suggests in a recent post that the eternal pre-mortem existence of the human soul might be a way to provide room for our free agency in a system of things that seems otherwise, as wholly determinate in and by its derivation from some past, and ultimately by and from God, to provide none. If we are eternal, he argues, then obviously we are not determined by anything other than ourselves, and so are free – free, among other things, to Fall.
There are some fatal problems with this suggestion. But hidden within it is the germ of a solution to the problem Dr. Charlton has noticed. All that is needed to unpack it is to apply certain distinctions.
It is crucial first to be clear on the difference between existing eternally and existing sempiternally – i.e., everlastingly. Sempiternality is enjoyed by angels, humans, and indeed facts of all sorts. God, too, is sempiternal, but unlike all other facts, he is also eternal: prior to duration as such. Eternal beings are all sempiternal, but not vice versa.
There is no problem, no paradox in the notion that a thing should have a beginning and no end. Indeed, we rely on facts to be sempiternal. If they weren’t, there could be no such thing as a past, or therefore either a present or a future. On Wednesday morning I had not flown to Chicago on April 24, 2013; by Wednesday evening, my having flown to Chicago on April 24, 2013 had become a fact that will never ever change. Its permanence is everlasting. In virtue of its facticity, it is sempiternal.
But because it came to be, and because it is contingent, its facticity is not eternal. Eternalities are nowise contingent, for there is no conceivable state of affairs in which they could be otherwise than they are. They exist necessarily, and immutably. Thus when we say that a thing is eternal, part of what we must mean is that it cannot change, or therefore come into being. So nor therefore can things that are subject to change be eternal. When I change at time t (from being, say, the Kristor who had not flown to Chicago at t -1 to the Kristor who had), the me of all moments prior to t is superseded by others for whom it is past and gone. It is not therefore eternal.
If the soul is eternally actual, then it cannot change, and we are not free to make decisions over the course of our lives. If it is free, then it cannot be eternally actual. But what this means is that the conundrum of creaturely freedom is not resolved by the supposition that we exist eternally, for if we are eternal, then none of our decisions are free at all – they are not, that is to say, true decisions in the first place. They do not in that case even exist.
Not only does supposing our eternality fail to solve the problems of freedom, or therefore of evil, but it introduces grave new problems. If we are co-eternal with God, then we are nowise dependent upon him, and he is not therefore either our Creator, or our Lord. But in that case, he is not God, properly speaking; indeed, in that case, there is no God. The actual eternality of the human soul entails atheism.
There is a way out, provided we recall that the soul is the form of the human being, rather than the actualization of the form of the human being, or of the mind or life of the human being. The form of a human, then, considered as a pure potentiality, can exist eternally, as an idea in the mind of God, and may then eventually be actualized contingently, and sempiternally, in and as a concrete real, a living person. Indeed, the form of each human must necessarily have existed eternally, somehow or other; for any of us ever to have come into being, it must have been always possible for a being with just such a form as ours to come into being. Our forms, then, had to exist eternally as possibilities, in order ever to be actualized anywhere. And this is so for all creatures. In order for any being to exist at any time or place, it must eternally be possible for just that occasion to come to pass.
Bruce and the source he quotes say that it seems like a bootless dodge to suggest that God created us free. But they give no reason for this seeming, and I can’t see what the reason might be. On the contrary, as Bruce himself has often noted, freedom seems to be inextricably given with our existence. Many philosophers – both determinists and their adversaries – have remarked that it is not possible for us to understand ourselves as having no power of decision or action. The determinists must spend a great deal of ink arguing that our native, ineluctable conviction of our freedom is illusory (it is no coincidence, as we shall see in a moment, that these same determinists generally argue also that in the final analysis our experience and our existence are likewise illusory).
In this I believe they are doomed to failure. There is no way for a being to be different from God unless it is able to do, and so be, something other than what God wills it to do and be; no way for it to be other than God unless it is inherently capable of independent causal origination. If God didn’t create free creatures, he didn’t create at all.
The difficulty of the determinists arises from their intuition that what we do and are is exhaustively accounted for, and therefore completely caused, by our antecedents; so that we are simply generated by our histories. If this were so, we wouldn’t be doing anything, wouldn’t be adding anything of our own to the causal flux. We would then be *nothing but* our past, a mere epiphenomenon. And what makes no causal contribution to the system of things has no participation therein; so far as other things are concerned, it does not exist. What adds nothing to its past, then, what makes no contribution to history, does not actually exist.
Thus for a thing to exist actually there must in its eventuation be some creative play, some room for it to make what it shall of its causal antecedents.
From outside an event – this being the only perspective upon it that is possible to any other – its original contributions to history, if such there be, must appear to be uncaused, and merely random; for, arising as they do from within the event itself, their causes or reasons will not be discoverable among its actual antecedents. Such procedures are called “stochastic.” Quoting Wikipedia:
Stochastic comes from the Greek word στόχος, which means “aim.” It also denotes a target stick; the pattern of arrows around a target stick stuck in a hillside is representative of what is stochastic. [“Stick” and “στόχος” are obviously the same word.]
In probability theory, a stochastic system is one whose state is non-deterministic. The subsequent state of a stochastic system is determined both by the system’s predictable actions and by a random element. A stochastic process is one whose behavior is non-deterministic; it can be thought of as a sequence of random variables. Any system or process that can be analyzed using probability theory is stochastic.
From within an event, on the other hand, its original contribution to the world will be quite apparent as the admixture of qualia that is peculiarly its own, which it recognizes as itself, and that makes it just the thing that it is, and different from all other events. And because in constituting itself as some coordination of its causal antecedents an event renders itself a definite thing, with definite, discernible relations to its antecedents, ex post we can understand its causal relations to its antecedents by taking our own measure of that constitution. Ex post, we can see how the causal inputs to an event are related to its causal output – to, i.e., the actual thing that it is. We cannot on this basis alone justify an inference that the event is fully determined *by* its causal antecedents. All we may infer is that it is fully determined *with respect to* those antecedents, and ordered thereto.
Thus while we are not free to infer that events are predetermined, it is open to us to suppose that they are *eventually* determined – that, i.e., a given event is rendered definite by virtue of its own idiosyncratic completion of the act of its becoming.
The basic difference between the determinist and stochastic views is that the former understands events as nothing more than the output of their histories, so that the procedure that generates events is just the past, and nothing but the past; whereas the latter views events as being themselves active procedures, that really do something with their inheritances from their actual worlds. Determinism argues that while it may seem as though there are archers shooting, really there are not. Stochasm insists that there are certainly archers shooting: real archers who are really taking up their stances, grasping the deliveries of their environments, adjusting themselves to their aim at the target, and loosing.
The determinist perspective is implicitly naturalist, even in its theist versions. It takes the past to be the fundamental matrix of becoming, and in its theist versions must treat God at last as one fact of nature among others, surpassing all other beings in excellence and power, but with them fully included in the coordinate system of all things.
The stochastic perspective on the other hand is implicitly supernaturalist. It takes eternity to be the fundamental matrix of becoming, and understands history as therefore open at the bottom of every juncture to supernatural influx, and to the ubiquity of the opportunity for the advent in history of the altogether new. In its theist versions (there are, mirabile dictu, some Platonic realists who are nevertheless atheists), it understands God as the first source of all facts and of their natures, and as including the coordinate system of all things.
From the perspective of the stochastic view of becoming, we may understand the deterministic view as applicable and useful in special cases, namely those in which we undertake analysis of the world ex post. Ex post analyses are by far the most common, for we are usually concerned to understand what has happened in our environments, and we can after all apprehend only those things that already exist. The only thing we can understand from an ex ante perspective is our own experience of what it is like to become: to feel, to compare and understand, and to decide. And the object of introspection is notoriously squirrelly and difficult to grasp (mostly because we try to grasp it with the familiar and handy intellectual instruments of ex post analysis).
Ex post analysis is as common, and as habitual to us, and therefore comfortable, as Newtonian mechanical analysis. Both are susceptible of persuasion to determinism. Ex ante analysis is as uncommon, and as difficult for us, as quantum mechanical analysis. Both the ex ante and the quantum mechanical modes of analysis are open to persuasion to a stochastic understanding of becoming.
But while ex post analysis is far more common, familiar and comfortable, clearly the analysis of experience as such is logically prior to the analysis of whatever it is that we experience. Thus an analysis of reality that discovers no room therein for experience per se – for mind, for intention, for meaning or signification, for purpose, aim, volition or free moral action, for qualia as real – and so finds itself absolutely incapable of any analysis of experience, or therefore of our lives as actually lived, is blind to the very most basic aspects of reality, and the most important. Seeing nowhere any role in the world for mind, such a doctrine cannot understand reality as including doctrines as such, or itself in particular. Determinism devours itself. Thus the determinist ex post analysis of reality is inherently inadequate.
We are therefore forced to a stochastic, ex ante metaphysic – to stochasm. For stochasm, creaturely freedom is nowise difficult to comprehend, being inherent in every procedure of becoming. And where there is freedom, there is freedom to err – to shoot the arrow and miss the stick. The Greek term we translate from the NT as “sin” is hamartia:
Hamartia (ἁμαρτία) is a word most famously used in Aristotle’s Poetics, where it is usually translated as a mistake or error in judgment. In modern discussions of tragedy, hamartia has often been described as a hero’s “tragic flaw.” The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes ignorant, mistaken, or accidental wrongdoing, as well as deliberate iniquity, error, or sin.
As free, a stochastic procedure is inherently prone to error – to defect, disorder, chaos – in a word, to evil. It is not absolutely destined to a Fall, but – there being so many more ways to miss the stick than to hit it – its tragic failure is quite likely.
 Whitehead calls them “pure potentialities of becoming,” the purity thereof being purity of any tincture of actuality.
 NB that God’s ontological inclusion of the whole coordinate system of things, as subvenient thereto and ground thereof, does not forfend his concurrent participation in the coordinate system of things, either pervasively (as, e.g., the Holy Spirit operating throughout the world, or the Paracletic Spirit of Truth operating particularly in the Church and her members), or individually (as YHWH, whether burning in a bush and speaking from the whirlwind, or incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and walking in the Garden in the cool of the day). That God is the eternal, absolute ground of existence as such does not prevent his engagement as a concrete personal agent in history, who can interact temporally with other beings.